Nuts are one of the most nutritious food choices we can make for our health. So why have we not embraced nuts as a mainstay in our diet? Is it because we think they are too fatty and will make us gain weight? Or is it because we simply don’t know enough about nuts to truly appreciate how healthy and good for us they really are? We discovereed that eating more nuts–in moderation–can help us get more healthy.
Is your nut really a nut?
There are many foods we call nuts, but that group actually is a composite of nuts, seeds and legumes.
Tree nuts consist of a seed surrounded by dry fruit and encased in a hard shell that doesn’t naturally open to release the seed when it matures. Among popular tree nuts are chestnuts, filberts (hazelnuts, and acorns. (Acorns can be ground to make flour for bread, pancakes, cookies pasta, even coffee; roasted; and added to stews, but must be leached first to remove toxic tannins).
Legumes are the edible seeds from pods you can split in half. Peanuts are the legumes we often lump into the nut category, but they are more akin to peas and beans.
Seeds are mature fertilised ovules of a plant that comprise an embryo, endosperm, and a protective covering. Nuts that really are seeds include almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, macadamias, pecans, pistachios, pine nuts, and walnuts. But most of these are called tree nuts by the FDA.
But this splitting of hairs doesn’t really matter to us. Nuts are delicious and one of the most nutritious food choices we can make these days. It’s no surprise that they figure prominently in some of the healthiest diets around, including the much vaunted Mediterranean diet.
Nuts: a whole host of benefits
As you snack away on nuts, you can be assured of a whole host of health benefits. Here are some of at the top of the list.:
1. Lower our risk of heart attack and stroke
Nuts are considered to be a heart healthy food. First of all, they contain “good cholesterol”, also known as HDL cholesterol. This beneficial cholesterol actually reduces the presence of dangerous cholesterol (LDL cholesterol) in the blood, according to The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. It ensures that they do not bind on the walls of arteries and blood vessels.
Nuts also contain an important amino acid, L-arginine, which relaxes blood vessels and eases any constriction or chronic contractions. When blood vessels are relaxed, blood flows more freely, and there is less stress on the entire system. Blood pressure decreases. Blood clots are also less likely to impact the body when the vessels are relaxed and the blood is flowing quickly and smoothly.
Certain polyphenolic flavonoid components, including resveratrol, can be found in nuts. This compound inhibits the activity of angiotensin which causes blood vessels to tighten. It also promotes nitric oxide, a known vasodilator, to be released.
Fish are not the only food rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Many nuts are rich in omega-3 fatty acids as well. Omega-3s are healthy fatty acids that appear to help the heart by, among other things, preventing irregular heart rhythms that can lead to heart attacks.
2. Protect our cells with antioxidants
Antioxidants, including the polyphenols in nuts, can combat oxidative stress by neutralizing the free radicals that may cause cell damage and increase our risk of disease. Free radicals and the oxidative damage they cause are associated with aging, and with age-related diseases including cardiovascular disease, cancer, neurodegenerative disorders, and other chronic conditions.
In one study, walnuts were found to be more effective in fighting free radicals than fish. Another study found that the antioxidants in walnuts and almonds can protect the delicate fats in our cells from being damaged by oxidation.
3. Provide anti-aging vitamin-E
Vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant, is found in nuts. Antioxidants protect cells from the damaging effects of free radicals in the body, molecules that contain an unshared electron. Free radicals damage cells and may contribute to the development of cardiovascular disease and cancer.
The health benefits of vitamin E include its ability to boost skin health and fight the harmful effects of free radicals that lead to wrinkles and premature aging. It also helps repair skin tissue, protect the skin against damage from UV rays and helps the skin retain moisture. Vitamin E also boosts immune function, increases the metabolic functions of the body, and promotes cellular repair.
Another health benefit of Vitamin E is that it has been linked with lowering risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
4. Lower cholesterol and triglycerides
Nuts may help lower total and “bad” LDL cholesterol and triglycerides while boosting levels of “good” HDL cholesterol. This may be due to their high content of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids.
Pistachios have been shown to lower triglycerides in people who are obese and have diabetes. In one 12-week study of obese individuals, those who ate pistachios achieved triglyceride levels nearly 33% lower than in the control group.
Almonds and hazelnuts appear to raise “good” HDL cholesterol while reducing total and “bad” LDL cholesterol.
Several studies show that macadamia nuts lower cholesterol levels as well. In one trial, a moderate-fat diet which included macadamia nuts reduced cholesterol as much as a lower-fat diet.
And let’s not forget pecans. One study found that 2–8 hours after consuming whole pecans, participants experienced a 26–33% drop in their levels of oxidized “bad” LDL cholesterol — a major risk factor for heart disease.
5. Help manage type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome
Type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome are strongly linked. In fact, metabolic syndrome is often referred to as pre-diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is a chronic disease that affects hundreds of millions of people worldwide.
Metabolic syndrome is a serious health condition. According to the American Heart Association, it refers to a group of risk factors that may increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and diseases related to fatty buildup in the arteries. The underlying causes of metabolic syndrome include being overweight or obese, being physically inactive, genetics, and aging.
Interestingly, nuts may be one of the best foods for people with metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. They’re low in carbs and don’t raise blood sugar levels much. Mixed nuts provide just 7 grams of carbohydrates in each one-ounce serving. Thus, substituting nuts for higher-carb foods can help in managing blood sugar levels. Studies suggest that eating nuts may also lower oxidative stress, blood pressure, and other health markers in those with diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
In a study of women with metabolic syndrome, those that ate just over one ounce (30-grams) of mixed walnuts, peanuts, and pine nuts daily for six weeks significantly lowered all types of cholesterol, except “good” HDL.
In a 12-week controlled study, individuals with metabolic syndrome who ate just under one ounce (25 grams) of pistachios two times a day lowered their fasting blood sugar by 9%, on average. Also, the pistachio group benefited from greater reductions in blood pressure and C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of inflammation linked to heart disease. A caveat: not all studies show a benefit from eating nuts in those with metabolic syndrome.
6. Help reduce inflammation
Inflammation is the body’s way of defending itself from injury, bacteria, and other potentially harmful pathogens. However, chronic, long-term inflammation can damage our organs and increase our risk of disease. Research suggests that eating nuts may reduce inflammation and promote healthy aging.
Nuts have strong anti-inflammatory properties. In a study on the Mediterranean diet, participants whose diets were supplemented with nuts benefited from a 35% and 90% reduction in the inflammatory markers C-reactive protein (CRP) and interleukin 6 (IL-6), respectively.
Similarly, some nuts — including pistachios, Brazil nuts, walnuts, and almonds — have been found to fight inflammation in both healthy individuals and those with serious health conditions like diabetes and kidney disease.
7. Help control weight
Although nuts are a calorie-dense food, research shows that our bodies do not absorb all of them–as a portion of fat stays trapped within the nut’s fibrous wall during digestion. For example, while the nutrition facts for almonds may indicate that a one-ounce (28-gram) serving has 160–170 calories, our bodies only absorb about 129 of these calories.
Adding nuts to our diets may help us maintain or lose weight. In addition to being a source of dietary fiber, they provide many nutrients and vitamins, without adding too many calories. The fiber in nuts helps us feel full while inhibiting the release of ghrelin, the hunger hormone, so that we tend to eat less. And, nuts are a source of oleic acid, a fat that helps us feel full.
According to the USDA, women over 50 need 21 grams of fiber a day—yet most of us get less than 10 grams. A one-ounce portion of nuts, roughly a handful, satisfies about 9-39% of our daily need for fiber.
High fiber foods tend to make us feel fuller and more satiated than low fiber foods. Fiber slows down the digestive process, so that we feel satisfied and can go longer without feeling hungry. It also helps regulate our blood sugar levels.
In fact, one large study that focused on evaluating the effects of the Mediterranean diet found that participants who were assigned to eat nuts lost an average of two inches (5 cm) from their waists. In numerous studies, almonds have consistently been shown to promote weight loss. In one study of overweight women, those eating almonds lost nearly three times as much weight and experienced a significant reduction in waist size compared to the control group.
Nuts may help keep people leaner because they are filling, explains Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “You have a handful of nuts and you just don’t feel hungry after that, it really does take away hunger and that turns out to be a very important factor in whether we gain weight or lose weight over the long run.”
8. Provide Beneficial Fiber
Each 1-ounce serving of mixed nuts contains about 3 grams of beneficial fiber. This helps stabilize blood sugar levels, create feelings of fullness, and support a healthy digestive system. It also reduces the number of calories that we’re able to digest from our food.
While we can’t digest fiber, the bacteria that live in our colons can. Many types of fiber function as prebiotics or food for healthy gut bacteria. Gut bacteria then ferment the fiber and turn it into beneficial short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). These SCFAs have powerful benefits, including improving gut health and reducing our risk of diabetes and obesity.
Despite their health benefits, nuts may not be for you
Unfortunately, despite their many health benefits, nuts can be a highly allergenic substance.
Allergic reactions can range from mild to extremely severe. They can include skin and facial irritation, swelling of the throat, respiratory malfunctions, anaphylactic shock, heart arrhythmia, vomiting, diarrhea, and gastric discomfort. Being allergic to one nut is not the same as another nut so be cautious whenever eating a new type of nut.
As long as you are aware of what your body can handle, nuts can be a very beneficial addition to a healthy diet.
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Disclaimer: This content is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice, or as a substitute for the advice of a physician.
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